Guitar Aficionado

The Really Good Guitars of Kentucky Headhunter Greg Martin

He's pared down his massive collection, but the guitars that remain are absolute gems.

This is a feature from the January/February 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop; MLB pitcher/guitar collector/musician Jake Peavy and his efforts to help local musicians, disadvantaged youths, and military veterans; producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois and his passion for pedal-steel guitars, motorcycles, and recording technology… plus much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

Martin’s collection includes (left to right) a 1957 Strat, 1958 Les Paul Standard, 1963 Les Paul SG, 1957 Tele, 1963 ES-335, and a Thirties steel-body National

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COLLECTION BLUES: Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin may not own as many vintage guitars as he used to, but these days he’s focused more on quality than quantity.

By Alan di Perna | Photography by Keith Leman

It’s not unusual for a guitarist to consolidate his assets and downsize wisely after a lifetime of guitar and amp collecting. That was the case for Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin. Since starting his career in the Sixties, Martin had amassed a collection that was the envy of many vintage guitar connoisseurs, but lately he’s been paring down his collection while focusing on a handful of absolute gems.

“Over the years, I’ve had to strip back a little,” he says. “My brother always taught me to trade up. When you trade a guitar, add some money to it and get yourself a better guitar. Over the years I’ve tried to do that. I don’t have as many guitars as I used to, but I’ve got some really good ones.”

While Martin once brought a slew of vintage guitars and amps into the studio for Headhunters album projects, he kept things simple for the group’s new release, On Safari. Normally more of a Marshall man, Martin relied instead on a Fifties-era tweed Fender Twin and 1950 tweed Champ this time out. “I’ve done a few sessions with the tweed amps, and I said, ‘Man these guys sound pretty good for that,’ ” he explains.

His principal guitar for the sessions was the 1958 Les Paul Standard that is the prize of his collection, supplemented by a 1964 Gibson Melody Maker for slide parts. With these select few instruments and amps, he was able to endow On Safari with a glorious range of classic guitar sounds—from creamy slide timbres to crisp brown-tone leads that blend crunch with clarity in all the right proportions.

“The whole album was recorded live in the studio with very few overdubs,” he says of On Safari. “The only solo that wasn’t done live was ‘Jukebox Full of Blues,’ the little shuffle at the end. That was originally recorded with just a straight guitar solo. But after we cut it, I said, ‘I’d like to try that with slide.’ The song is in C, though, and that’s a really crazy key to play slide in. I could have played it in standard 440 tuning, but I like to have the open strings you get with an open tuning. In the end, I put it in either open A or G tuning with a capo and did the solo that way. Open G is my favorite tuning for slide. When you play in open G or A, you’re getting into the more country-blues realm, whereas when you do open D or open E, you get into Duane Allman territory.”

Slide playing is one of Martin’s many strong suits. Like any good aspiring bluesman, he started off with Coricidin glass bottle slides. Later, he gravitated to a Swamp Frog from Rocky Mountain Slides and now has his own signature-model Rocky Mountain slide. “What I do on slide ends up sounding like a lap steel a lot of times,” he says, “because I grew up listening to a lot of country music. An element of that slips in there.”

Rock music was at top of the playlist back in 1968 in Glasgow, Kentucky, when Martin and the Young Brothers joined forces in a band called Itchy Brother. At first, they did what every psychedelicized garage band did in 1968. “We started playing covers—Steppenwolf, Cream, Iron Butterfly, Beatles, Stones, ” Martin says. “But you could not help be influenced by the country roots of the area—people like Merle Travis, Merle Haggard, Chet Atkins, George Jones.”

The Headhunters’ seamless blend of country and rock is part of a broader American roots-music palette that also embraces blues, R&B, southern boogie, and even a bit of gospel. What other group could cover Alice Cooper (“Caught in a Dream”) and Charlie Daniels (“Way Down Yonder”) on the same album and do equal justice to both? Great guitar playing is the common denominator that links these styles, and the Headhunters stand proud in the grand tradition of two-guitar bands. Powered by his 1952 and 1960 Telecasters and a Les Paul Junior, Richard Young’s sparkling rhythm work provides the perfect complement to Martin’s Gibson-centric tone.

Richard Young (left) with 1952 Tele and Greg Martin (right) with Thirties National jamming on the porch of their ol’ Kentucky home, a.k.a. the Practice House

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“Richard and I are like a hillbilly version of Keith Richards and Mick Taylor,” Martin quips. “Not to compare us to that by any means, but I think that any band with two guitar players should go back to [the Rolling Stones’ 1970 live album] Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out—that era right there. That shows what two guitars can do together. As much as I love power trios, it’s also great to have a wonderful rhythm player. And Richard is that.”

The Kentucky Headhunters’ rootsy, guitar-friendly sound on their debut album, Pickin’ on Nashville, landed them at the top of the country charts in 1989. Around this time, Martin’s sunburst 1958 Les Paul Standard came into his life. It was a gift from Hank Williams Jr., who toured with the Headhunters in 1990. Williams initially lent it to Martin to shoot the video for “Oh Lonesome Me,” the Don Gibson cover that was the third single from Pickin’ on Nashville, and the Kentucky Headhunters’ sole Top 10 hit.

“Hank was kind enough to let me use that guitar,” Martin says. “I plugged it in and said, ‘That���s it. That’s the sound I’ve been looking for all my life.’ I’ve tried every guitar, but nothing had the tone of that ’58 through an old Marshall. When I took it back on the bus in 1991 to give it back to him, I said, ‘I love this guitar, but something like this is always just out of reach for me [financially].’ He said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, you can keep it.’ ”

The Les Paul had formerly belonged to Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King. “But the story I also heard is that a gospel group owned it,” Martin adds. “There’s a crown on the case that looks like a gospel type of crown. Vintage guitars have a history. I love the fact that someone else’s DNA is on them.”

These days, Martin’s 1958 Les Paul mainly accompanies him on sessions and photo or video shoots. “The crew gets a little freaked-out when I take it out,” he deadpans. “But I play some little side gigs every now and then with it. I’ve got a friend who goes with me and watches the guitar when I go on breaks. I’m very careful with that guitar.”

For road work these days, Martin’s main ax is a Gibson Collector’s Choice (CC) copy of his 1958 Les Paul Standard—CC #15—along with CC #13, which is based on Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian’s historic 1959 ’burst, and a Gibson Custom Shop R8 1958 Les Paul Special. “Those three guitars get me through,” he says. “The Gibson Custom Shop is building some great stuff.”

As an avid devotee of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Martin is especially fond of Gibson’s Sebastian model. “My brother and cousin took me to see the Lovin’ Spoonful in the fall of 1966,” he says. “It was the first time I saw John Sebastian, and I was infatuated with the little guitar he was playing. I didn’t know what it was, but that was his ’59 Les Paul. That always stuck with me. I was a big fan of the Lovin’ Spoonful anyway; John Sebastian is one of my big heroes. I love the Beatles and the Stones, but when I saw the Lovin’ Spoonful I realized that you could take rock and roll and mix it with country, blues, and jugband music and come out with some really cool music. I think that influence comes out many times on the new album. Richard and I have a lot of John and Zal [Yanovsky, the Spoonful’s lead guitarist, who died in 2002] in us. And now John’s my friend; Zal was too.”

Martin is a true Gibson aficionado, and his collection also includes a 1963 ES-335, a 1963 Les Paul SG, a 1959 double-cutaway Les Paul Junior, and the 1964 Melody Maker he uses for slide that’s not quite stock. His later-model Gibsons include a 1974 Flying V and a 1979 ES-175.

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Martin’s Fender collection is spare but well curated and includes a 1957 Strat, a 1957 Telecaster, and a 1959 Tele, along with a more recent Fender Nashville B-Bender Tele. For acoustics, he relies on his 1972 Martin D-28, a 1973 D-35, and a Thirties-era steel-body Dobro. “I’m mainly a Gibson/Fender guy, but I’ve owned everything over the years,” he says.

Nor has Martin given up acquiring new instruments. He’s currently on the hunt for just the right Olympic White rosewood-neck vintage Strat to replace one from 1964 that he sold some time ago. Inevitably, he misses some of the guitars he no longer owns, such as his 1950 Esquire, 1958 Les Paul Special, 1959 dot-neck Gibson 335 with PAF pickups, and the mid-Fifties Gretsch Duo Jet that was his first good guitar. But he’s basically stoic about downsizing his guitar collection.

“Sure there are some guitars I wish I still had,” he admits. “Honestly, I wish I had every one that’s gone. It would be a roomful, I’ll tell you.”

When it comes to amps, Martin’s collection still has plenty of power to burn. It includes just about all of the most desirable vintage Marshalls from the company’s 1967–1974 golden era, plus some 18-watt Marshall combos. To balance this out, he also owns a tweed-through-blackface potpourri of Fender amps.

“I’ve got a nice old Magnatone too,” he adds. “It’s got that sound that Lonnie Mack used on ‘Wham’ and ‘Memphis’ and stuff like that.”

A true guitarist’s guitarist, Martin has made superb use of all his gear over these many years. His lead work is an integral part of the Kentucky Headhunters’ sound and style, and On Safari is rife with his incisive, barn-razing lead guitar intros and outros. And Martin is a master of terse, call-and-response lead lines that echo and suggest the vocal lines sung by one of the Headhunters’ two lead vocalists, Richard Martin and bassist Doug Phelps.

Although the Kentucky Headhunters disappeared from the top of the charts by the mid Nineties, they’re still going strong today thanks to a busy touring schedule and a loyal fan base. They recently completed their first-ever European tour and last year released Meet Me in Bluesland, their second album with legendary Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson. The energetic performances recorded for On Safari are proof that the band’s unique country-rock hybrid style is very much alive and well. While a few members have come and gone over the years, the core triumvirate of Martin and the Young brothers has survived for an amazing 48 years. Few musical partnerships make it that far, especially once the hits stop happening. But the Kentucky Headhunters are a rare exception to that rule.

“We’ve gone through a few different stages,” Martin reflects, “but the common denominator has always been the music. We’ve been lucky. We’re like a family, and like every family we have a little spat now and then. But we love each other, and I think that comes through in the music.”

This is a feature from the January/February 2017 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on the unique artistry and dedication of Tokyo’s ESP Custom Shop; MLB pitcher/guitar collector/musician Jake Peavy and his efforts to help local musicians, disadvantaged youths, and military veterans; producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois and his passion for pedal-steel guitars, motorcycles, and recording technology… plus much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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